By Trilok Sharma—
In the Middle Age, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo coined the phrase ‘Silk Road’ for the caravan routes. The Silk Road got its name from the lucrative Chinese Silk trade along it, which began during the Han Dynasty. It covered a distance of about 11,000 km from China’s Fujian (Gangzhou) to Central Asia, northern India, the Parthian and Roman empires during the period from 200 BC to 14th century AD.
Trade on the Silk Road marked an important step in the development of the civilizations of China, India, Persia, Europe and Asia. Centuries ago, India and Pakistan were a part of the Silk Road network. Pakistan was a gateway to South Asia on the old Silk Road.
Silk was the main commodity in the list but paper, ivory, sandalwood, spices, horses, carpets, fruits, skins, vases, military equipments, medicines, perfumeries, gold, silver, tea, rice, mirrors were also traded through the Silk Road.
Through this network of roads, goods, people-to-people and cultural exchanges took place, which facilitated and helped the people of the entire region to understand their diverse history, cultures and thought processes.
Birth of notion
In September of 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping in his speech at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University firstly announced the idea of reviving “Silk Road Economic Belt,” as a new foreign policy initiative aiming to enhance international cooperation and joint development throughout Eurasia. To guide this new project, the Chinese president identified five specific goals- strengthening economic collaboration, improving road connectivity, promoting trade and investment, facilitating currency conversion, and bolstering people-to-people exchanges.
Xi subsequently announced plans for the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route at the 2013 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Indonesia. To accommodate expanding maritime trade traffic, Chinese President Xi showed his country’s willingness to invest in port development throughout the Indian Ocean, in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Pakistan.
Subsequently, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reiterated the same initiative during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit and East Asia Summit held in 2013. Since then, the establishment of a modern overland and 21st Century Maritime Silk Route has become a major part of the Chinese foreign policy, endorsed by the Communist Party of China and the National People’s Congress.
How is it relevant at present?
Historically, the Silk Road is a unique example of intercontinental cooperation and collaboration not only of trade and commerce but also in the realm of ideas and cultures. Various technologies, religions and philosophies travelled along the Silk routes. And, now China wishes to spell the same old magic by reviving the Silk Road.
The new Silk Road initiative envisioned by the Chinese leadership, which entails the construction of a Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Route (One Belt One Road in short form), paints a grand picture of the common development of three continents and helps spread awareness of China’s friendly policies towards neighboring countries.
Unlike our southern neighbor India, China believes that stability in China and surrounding countries is a foundation for its development and prosperity. Without the Asia rising as a whole, China’s rise is unsustainable. For this reason, by reviving Silk Road, China seems to work in such way that her development could facilitate the development of the whole region.
The Belt and Road initiative also upholds the idea of security through development and development through security. The initiative will surely boost common security and prosperity in the region by putting into practice a new security concept for Asia: common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security.
In November last year Chinese President Xi announced that China alone would contribute $40 billion to establish the Silk Road infrastructure fund to boost connectivity across Asia.
As China itself is the second largest economy of the world, it may not struggle to finance its Silk Road ambitions but is likely to face political resistance – especially with regard to maritime route.
At a time when China’s assertive position in the South and East China Seas is provoking anxiety among its neighbors –including Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Singapore – the Silk road initiative has aroused significant geopolitical apprehensions. These issues have been much complicated and intensified by the US strategy of rebalancing power in the Asian continent, which is better known as the US pivot to Asia.
Some experts on geopolitics argue that China is attempting to resist the US strategic space, while there are also concerns from certain quarters that the new Silk Road might jeopardize a cooperation framework floated by the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
Apart from this, there are also some non-traditional challenges. They include what Chinese call “the three forces”: terrorism, separatist and extremism, and disputes over resources.
Benefits to Nepal
Signing an agreement in Beijing, Nepal became a part of the Silk Road Economic Belt on December 4, 2014.
China wishes to leverage Tibet Autonomous Region’s geographic location to extend a Silk Road node to Nepal. It wants to link with Nepal and South Asia through an extension of the Qinghai-Tibet railway.
The rail line from Lhasa has already been extended to Shigatse, which is Tibet’s second largest city. From Shigatse, China has planned to build two rail lines. One would lead to Kerung (Jilong of Tibet) the nearest Chinese town from Nepal, from where it would be extended to Rasuwagadhi of Nepal. The other line would head to Yadong on the India-Bhutan border.
During an official visit in December 2014, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged Nepali counterpart Mahendra Bahadur Pandey to carry out a feasibility study if Nepal wants to extend railway to Kathmandu and beyond. As Nepal has a long border from east to west (1400 kilometers) with the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and with the recent openings of new trade points with China, Nepal will be certainly be benefitted more in near future from growing road, rail and air connectivity with China.
Besides this, inviting Chinese Silk Road into Nepal will help Nepal to accelerate her vision to serve as the bridge between the South Asia to Central Asia as well as linking the Himalayan economies of Indian and Nepal as an integrated South Asian ‘Green Economy’.
Sharma is currently pursuing Masters on Conflict, Peace & Development Studies at the Tribhuwan University.